I’ve got a new thematic mini-series brewing for the blog!
As I’ve been writing different kinds of stories, I’ve been thinking a lot about how literature (and stories in general) can play with our understanding of time and temporal narrative. This is not a new line of inquiry for me, and as such much of what I tackle in this series will be drawn from my undergraduate philosophy thesis on Husserl, Time, and what I then dubbed Literary Time Consciousness in honor of Husserl’s understanding of internal time consciousness. As such, although all of the work is my own, I owe much of my inspiration and interpretation to the excellent professor who advised me, and who allowed me to explore my love of literature in a philosophical way.
In stories, we can speed through years or stretch out a moment, and find new ways to think about linear perception. Stories play with our conscious experience of time, shaping and changing it according to the intentions of an author. When we read, we can simultaneously experience the duration three weeks and yet only pass a single evening. When authors embed stories within stories, this becomes even less straightforward, making it possible read for half an hour about a scene that takes up three hours, while a character tells a story that covers three years, and in some ways, you truly can experience all three timelines.
Generally speaking, we register the passing of time in two ways. In the first, we measure the way time moves through us; clocks and watches and calendars mark the interminable march of that which we cannot control. In the second, we gauge how we move through time. We don’t just get older, we move up. We progress through things – grade levels, to-do lists, assignments, rites of passage, phases of life, deadlines – as if we are actually moving forward toward some objective trajectory. The story of our lives, as we live them, is linear and teleological.
Or is it? Is the way we perceive time a construct of our consciousness, as some literature suggests? If it is, then the nature of subjectivity is something that can be played with and manipulated. In Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn, the characters literally step through a clock, and out of the limitation of reality and time.
I believed – as you do – that time was at least as real and solid as myself, and probably more so. I said ‘one o’clock as though I could see it, and ‘Monday’ as though I could find it on the map; and I let myself be hurried along from minute to minute, day to day, year to year, as though I were actually moving from one place to another. Like everyone else, I lived in a house bricked up with seconds and minutes, weekends and New Year’s Days, and I never went outside until I died, because there was no other door. Now I know I could have walked through the walls. (Beagle, 169)
It’s an appealing thought, but what would it actually mean to break through and experience temporal consciousness differently? Can we alter it in pieces, keeping the durational quality of time without succumbing to the progressive nature of linear experience? We do this somewhat when we sleep and dream; while we impose an alarm clock on our psyches, we do not necessarily, within our sleep, keep track of order and duration. Then again, we also have a tendency not to remember our dreams, at least not well. Perhaps the forward-moving teleology of temporality is the price of a coherent memory.
In this series, I want to share some thoughts and explorations on how, through literature, we might be able to manipulate and change the way our active consciousness perceives the world, affecting a consciousness of time that is of our own make, allowing us to experience not just time-consciousness, but literary time-consciousness, which – free from the constraints of pure objectivity – allows us to test the limits of our subjectivity.
Every Wednesday for the foreseeable future will be devoted to this theme of literary time consciousness, and I’ll be supplementing the series with relevant installments of Philosopher Fridays, too. As always, this will not be a comprehensive study, nor will I come to any definitive conclusions (it’s a blog, not a dissertation), but will instead aim to explore different possibilities – including what I want to be true (whether it is or not).